Standing out in a nation of more than one billion requires something special.
And when you call cricket-fixated India home, this task is made even stiffer if you excel with racquet rather than bat. Yet one magical summer has swept badminton’s PV Sindhu into the collective consciousness of the world’s second-most populous country.
An estimated television audience of 17.2 million tuned in past midnight to see the genial 21-year-old historically claim silver in defeat to Spain’s Carolina Marin during August’s Rio 2016 Olympics. This caused
India to tread new ground, making her both the first shuttler to reach a badminton final there and the youngest competitor to achieve a podium finish in an individual event.
A roaring reception amid streets lined with supporters in her native Hyderabad showcased the heightened attention. Not bad for an unfancied prospect, who had headed to Brazil as ninth seed.
Fast forward to this week’s season-ending Dubai World Superseries Finals, and Sindhu is a star attraction. A spot was earned in the elite event thanks to a fearsome late run of form which included a landmark triumph at last month’s prestigious China Open, her first Superseries trophy, and the runner-ups spot at the Hong Kong Open, while a following of more than 700,000 on Twitter points to new-found popularity.
Speaking to Sport360 at Hamdan Sports Complex prior to Wednesday’s debut where she rallied to beat Japan’s Akane Yamaguchi in Group B, this year’s recipient of the sport’s Most Improved Player reflected on an unforgettable spell which has caused her to be propelled, with haste, into the limelight.
“Overall, this year has been fantastic for me,” Sindhu says. “I wish even the ending of the year will be fantastic.
“It has been really good after the Olympics. I simply had to focus on the tournaments which were coming so soon.
“After that, I won my first Superseries. Rating this year, it has been a wonderful year.
“It is a totally different feeling now. On the social media, everybody was congratulating me – including the big stars.
“When I went back to India, I never thought that huge crowd would be waiting. They were everywhere, small kids and everybody – it really touched my heart and I was so happy.”
In Rio, Sindhu showed notice of her intent with an energising 2-0 win against current World No1 Tai Tzu-ying of Chinese Taipei to enter the quarter-finals. Further whitewashes then followed against China’s Wang Yihan and Japan’s Nozomi Okuhara, prior to the showdown with Marin.
There, she was outclassed during an 83-minute contest which ended in a 2-1 loss, but left with prized metal and her name imprinted on Indian society.
“It was my dream, which has come true,” the current World No10 says. “It was really different, talking about the Olympics. After losing the final, I was upset. But my coach said to me it had been a fantastic week.”
Sporting success was almost pre-destined, with parents PV Ramana and P Vijaya both professional volleyballers. It was from them she gained the height which allows her to produce steep smashes and fearsome serves.
Eschewing the chance to follow in their footsteps, Sindhu showed significant promise at badminton. With indefatigable spirit already in place, the quarter-finals of the 2010 Junior World Badminton Championships were reached prior to a notable victory at the 2012 Asia Youth Under-19 Championship.
Progress in the adults game was to follow. A total of four Grand Prix Golds crowns were claimed from 2013-15, with captaincy of Chennai Smashers in the 2016 Premier Badminton League detailing her advancement.
Sindhu declares she is “really, really, lucky” to have received such careful nurturing.
She says: “I started at the age of eight and a half. My dad and mum were volleyball players, with my dad getting a bronze medal with India at the Asian Games.
“Everybody asks me ‘why not volleyball?’. But it was my own interest to come into badminton, my parents encouraged me a lot. This was an advantage to me, because as sportspersons they know how they’ve come up in life. That way, they have really improved me all the time.
“Your parents’ support is the most-important thing in life. I am really, really lucky to have parents like them.”
Sindhu is part of a female sporting renaissance in her country. Tennis star Sania Mirza is currently ranked No1 in the women’s doubles rankings and made Time magazine’s 2016 list of the 100 most influential people because of her activism, while Dipa Karmakar followed in Sindhu’s footsteps by gaining India’s highest sporting honour – the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna – after she finished fourth in Rio as the first Indian woman gymnast to qualify for the Olympics.
“Comparatively, the support in India has been phenomenal,” Sindhu says. “I am really thankful to the government.
“We have been doing really well in a lot of sports now. In tennis, there is Sania Mirza and then gymnastics there is Dipa.
“Not everybody can get a medal. But it is great there are hundreds of people participating at the Olympics and that is the big thing for everybody.”
Signs China’s iron grip on badminton has started to slacken have appeared. Sindhu and Denmark’s Jan O Jorgensen locked out the singles during last month’s exalted China Open, while the former-mentioned and Marin’s final at Rio represented the first time no Chinese had competed in the women’s showpiece for 20 years ago.
Sindhu is convinced this broader field is a positive development for the sport.
She adds: “It was just China before, but now there are many countries coming up – Chinese Taipei, Spain and South Korea.
“It is improving the sport and there is much more recognition. The sport is growing a lot.
“I think in the women’s game, the intensity has been improved a lot. There are also many youngsters, so it can improve even more.”
Another Chinese competitor is up next today, in Sun Yu.
This repeat of the 2016 China Open-decider represents a challenge Sindhu, in enthusiastic fashion, is ready to embrace.
She says: “It is my first time here, so I am looking forward to it. It will not be easy.
“She knows my game and I know her game. But this will be totally different.”